Monday, February 6, 2023

Education Issues Vault to Top of the G.O.P.’s Presidential Race

I like it. 

At the New York Times, "Donald Trump and possible rivals, like Gov. Ron DeSantis, are making appeals to conservative voters on race and gender issues, but such messages had a mixed record in November’s midterm elections":

With a presidential primary starting to stir, Republicans are returning with force to the education debates that mobilized their staunchest voters during the pandemic and set off a wave of conservative activism around how schools teach about racism in American history and tolerate gender fluidity.

The messaging casts Republicans as defenders of parents who feel that schools have run amok with “wokeness.” Its loudest champion has been Gov. Ron DeSantis, who last week scored an apparent victory attacking the College Board’s curriculum on African American studies. Former President Donald J. Trump has sought to catch up with even hotter language, recently threatening “severe consequences” for educators who “suggest to a child that they could be trapped in the wrong body.”

Nikki Haley, a former South Carolina governor, who has used Twitter to preview her planned presidential campaign announcement this month, recently tweeted “CRT is un-American,” referring to critical race theory.

Yet, in its appeal to voters, culture-war messaging concerning education has a decidedly mixed track record. While some Republicans believe that the issue can win over independents, especially suburban women, the 2022 midterms showed that attacks on school curriculums — specifically on critical race theory and so-called gender ideology — largely were a dud in the general election.

While Mr. DeSantis won re-election handily, many other Republican candidates for governor who raised attacks on schools — against drag queen story hours, for example, or books that examine white privilege — went down in defeat, including in Kansas, Michigan, Arizona and Wisconsin.

Democratic strategists, pointing to the midterm results and to polling, said voters viewed cultural issues in education as far less important than school funding, teacher shortages and school safety.

Even the Republican National Committee advised candidates last year to appeal to swing voters by speaking broadly about parental control and quality schools, not critical race theory, the idea that racism is baked into American institutions.

Still, Mr. Trump, the only declared Republican presidential candidate so far, and potential rivals, are putting cultural fights at the center of their education agendas. Strategists say the push is motivated by evidence that the issues have the power to elicit strong emotions in parents and at least some potential to cut across partisan lines.

In Virginia, Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s victory in 2021 on a “parents’ rights” platform awakened Republicans to the political potency of education with swing voters. Mr. Youngkin, who remains popular in his state, began an investigation last month of whether Virginia high schools delayed telling some students that they had earned merit awards, which he has called “a maniacal focus” on equal outcomes.

Mr. DeSantis, too, has framed his opposition to progressive values as an attempt to give parents control over what their children are taught.

Last year, he signed the Parental Rights in Education Act, banning instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in early elementary grades.

Democrats decried that and other education policies from the governor as censorship and as attacks on the civil rights of gay and transgender people. Critics called the Florida law “Don’t Say Gay.”

Polling has shown strong support for a ban on L.G.B.T.Q. topics in elementary school. In a New York Times/Siena College poll last year, 70 percent of registered voters nationally opposed instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in elementary grades.

“The culture war issues are most potent among Republican primary voters, but that doesn’t mean that an education message can’t be effective with independent voters or the electorate as a whole,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster, who worked for Mr. DeSantis during his first governor’s race in 2018.

Mr. DeSantis’s approach to education is a far stretch from traditional issues that Republicans used to line up behind, such as charter schools and merit pay for teachers who raise test scores. But it has had an impact...